Skip to content


Chicago – A Walkable City

Thursday, August 4, 2005

The defining American city of the twentieth century was Chicago

Carl Schurz High School, Chicago. Dwight Perkins, Architect

The late British architectural historian Reynar Banham was fascinated with the Industrial Era.  He charted the course of various mechanical inventions to show how they changed the architectural environment; he felt Los Angeles was the purely American city of the Industrial Era.  Quite like me, he felt an interest for North American grain elevators, and studied how they influenced development of the skyscraper.  Yet, for all of his interest in Los Angeles, there was one interest almost missed: the defining American city of the twentieth century was Chicago.  Los Angeles simply built on a very different departure away from the Chicago experience. The Los Angeles urban development model seemed to gain prominence after it had effectively dumped its mass transit system.  If the movie weren’t so tongue in cheek, the downfall of the “Big Red Train” was portrayed with almost embarrassing similarities in the 1988 film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit“.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Chicago must have seemed like the epicentre of the industrial universe.  Yet, for all of its new found technological advancements, Chicago was a very down to earth, if not predictable place.  Chicago’s practicality was borne of ingenuity.  It just seemed to convey a Midwestern notion of common sense.  These days, we would try to find a fancy new term for this line of thinking, perhaps calling it….. sustainable design, or transit oriented development.

Chicago was built as a walkable city.  When that walkable limit was filled, the railways came, building stations just beyond this walkable limit, and created new towns with their own walkable limits.  Chicagoans were a highly mobile people, yet energy efficient thanks to walking and mass transit.  It wasn’t until the motor car came along that the areas between the town centres became infilled with sprawl.

Carl Schurz High School

Lyman Trumbull School, Chicago. Dwight Perkins, Architect

While Chicago is chock full of bridges that go up and down and turn around, those devices that are rarely seen are as important. After departing from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park studio, Dwight Perkins came to be in charge of the Bureau of Architecture at Chicago Public Schools.  His theories about preventing disease through good design were simply revolutionary.  Lifting spaces out of pre-Deep Tunnel System basements that were prone to flooding, he went to enormous lengths to promote concepts of light and fresh air. Many of his schools – like Carl Schurz High School – used vast air plenums fed by decorative roof vent intakes to keep a constant supply of fresh air throughout the building.  In another building, the Lyman Trumbell School, the washrooms are built around strategically placed light wells, offering light and air to those same interior washrooms that were once relegated to musty cellars. Still other schools of the era after Mr. Perkins’ tenure displayed very early examples of ‘dampers’; a mechanical device that would sense hot or cool air, and direct it appropriately for the time of year. Outside of schools, many early skyscrapers demonstrated the same principles known today as ‘green design’ by providing shallow floor plan depths between exterior walls with window openings, a simple design feature that allowed natural daylight and ventilation.  Factories, industrial plants and warehouses mastered a “vertical assembly” concept: raw materials would arrive and immediately be shipped up to the top floor. The product would become more and more assembled on its trek down through the building, the finished product appearing on the ground floor, ready to be shipped back out. Compare this concept to the enormous, single level warehouses that line I-55 through Bolingbrook.

Chicagoans still use one of the best and most accessible public transit systems available in North America.  We simply started with something good.  Some design choices – like mining out pine forests in our quest to build – may not have been the best practice in hindsight.  Other design ingenuity represented a “best practices” in sustainable design technology, still relevant today.

Let’s see what else we may do.

Posted in Architecture, History, Real Estate Development, Speaking Engagements, Transit, Urban Planning.